It’s 10 a.m. on a weekday morning, and the kitchen is in full swing at Edmund’s Oast on Charleston’s Morrison Boulevard.
The restaurant serves for 11 hours daily — not counting the special dinners and events which might fill up a private room or the outdoor bower. Heat is already rising over cooktops as the dishwasher is setting up his sinks, and there’s plenty of in-and-out activity at the walk-in cooler that occupies a wall near the kitchen door.
On the far end of the kitchen, executive pastry chef Heather Hutton is tucked into a corner which, before 2020, used to be a prime chef’s-counter spot. She’s outfitted it with her mise en place of the day: dehydrated rhubarb, strawberries in syrup, sprigs of Thai basil, and a portable blowtorch, all in easy reach.
In front of her, at the moment, is a large bowl of snowy custard she’s hand-whisking. The stones of numerous intention bracelets circling her wrists gently clack against each other with each movement. It’s just another day at the office for Hutton who, along with the support of two additional pastry sous chefs, is building one of a small but growing number of full-time restaurant pastry programs in the city — and most assuredly one of its most creative.
“Before the pandemic in Charleston, we [pastry chefs] were being replaced by soft-serve machines,” she says. “Pastry was the last priority for many restaurants, but since the pandemic, dessert sales have been sky-high. People are looking for dessert, and it basically feels like a renaissance. It’s growing into the kind of pastry scene I’ve always wished we had. The whole scene has evolved.”
And at Edmund’s (as it is affectionately known around town), Hutton is leading that pastry renaissance in the Holy City.
Edmund’s Oast has always been a place that strived to do a lot of different things. How can engaging desserts not be a part of our repertoire?— Scott Shor, managing partner of The Edmund’s Oast Group
Her dinner dessert menu, which is extensive at eight items, plus a rotating selection of seasonal ice creams, is only the beginning. There are also custom confections ranging from wedding cakes to profiteroles for special events, and plenty of to-go picnic and pick-up items, including Nutella sea salt chocolate chip cookies, the biggest seller by volume of any dessert selection at the restaurant.
It’s a large, rotating, in-and-out-of-the-oven-and-the-freezer mountain of daily work. And sure, it could just be the constant access to a sugar high, but Hutton seems smiling and serene.
“I’m a true pastry chef who wants to be challenged,” she says. “Edmund’s fits well with my background, as I’m able to do a range of desserts. A menu of this size and variety is creatively liberating.”
Before arriving at Edmund’s, Hutton perfected her pastry chops at the now-shuttered Charleston favorites 492 and Social Wine Bar, and previous to that, worked at Old Edwards Inn and Spa in Highlands, NC, where she recalls, “I was thrown into the deep end with fine dining, and with the fast pace, and it was a great way to know what I didn’t know. Pastry is too big to really ever master it and be an expert, but I’m always seeking to build mastery.”
A self-professed fan of Americana desserts, she found another love in French pastry during culinary school, and she deftly combines the styles into her own distinct culinary voice, incorporating global influences as well as local Charleston seasonal ingredients, and tirelessly works through the elements of a dish to find the complexities and highlight balance.
What results is everything from an old fashioned chiffon cake flavored with spiced honey and topped with a salted cream cheese frosting, to South Carolina strawberry baked Alaska, with roasted strawberry ice cream snuggled atop a graham cracker crust.
“Heather is truly phenomenal,” says executive chef Bob Cook. “She is always really on top of what is in season, and she fits so well with our aesthetic, that of having a humble way to sort of under-promise and over-deliver. And her pies are so unbelievably good.”
Hutton calls herself intuitive, and she asserts that before anything makes its way onto a menu, she does a little self-searching to see if it fits not only the restaurant style, but her personal, individual culinary voice. She strives for balance, looking to play with elements of sweet, salty, and sour to create a moment of bliss and joy when the guest takes that first bite, and she values originality.
All of that ties into a playful menu that runs the gamut from pies and cookies to high-end pastry creations as the mood strikes.
It’s no secret that pastry programs can be expensive for a restaurant’s bottom line (which is why so many restaurants choose to outsource desserts), but Scott Shor, managing partner of The Edmund’s Oast Group, brushes aside any financial concern.
“I think it is a priority because it helps differentiate the experience we can showcase to our guests. Edmund’s Oast has always been a place that strived to do a lot of different things. How can engaging desserts not be a part of our repertoire?”
Shor continues: “It is our privilege to work with one of the best pastry chefs in the region. If Heather wants to work with us, we are damn well going to provide a platform for her craft to be enjoyed. Just watch the smiles on people’s faces when dessert comes out. Come on. Priceless. Then they taste it.”
Stephanie Burt is an audio producer, and food and travel writer. She is the host and producer of The Southern Fork podcast and has contributed to Saveur, The Washington Post, The Bitter Southerner, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy too.